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Women Who Loved Cinema, (Parts 1 and 2). (2002).

WOMEN WHO LOVED CINEMA, (PARTS 1 AND 2). (2002) Marianne Khoury

'Ashiqat al-Cinema is an important documentary for several reasons. The first is that it provides an encyclopedic overview of scholarship, local knowledge, archival footage and material relating to the subject of early female pioneers of Egyptian cinema. It is also important because it reveals the staggering collective loss of their achievements and contributions. While we continue to hear of the works and genius of directors such as Youssef Chahine for example, the women who helped usher him into the industry as a young man are now relatively unknown. No doubt, Chahine himself is aware of this for his company (Aflam Misr al-'Alamiya) produced the film.

Women Who Loved Cinema is part of the Women Pioneers series, which is presently being distributed by Arab Film Distributors (AFD) in Seattle--a commercial enterprise that acts as a vital link between independent Arab film and its distribution in the West. On the Women Pioneers series, AFD notes that "by eschewing the common stereotypes of Arab women, these extraordinary leaders have enriched Arab heritage with their musical, literary or political endeavors and their fearless sense of adventure." And indeed this is precisely what 'Ashiqat al-Cinema reveals: how in a male-dominated and highly conservative society, women could rise through the ranks of the cinema industry to become well-respected leaders in the field.

Although the documentary is highly valuable and informative, the low-budget production can sometimes be off-putting, but this is compensated for by Marianne Khoury's sensitivity to her topic. Her blend of academic scholarship with journalistic research comes across strongly and captivatingly on the screen. For example, in part I, we see our filmmaker Marianne sitting in front of an electronic library catalogue, where academic Farida Meri' explains to her that the Arabic library is lacking in the field of archiving. Doctor Meri' is referring to something more endemic than the singular exclusion of material on Egyptian cinema before the sixties, she is also referring to a general lack of archiving on various levels and subjects within the broader Arabic library. It was also highly entertaining and informative for us to sit in, no matter how briefly, on a conference on 1920s women in (Arab) cinema, which was held at the American University of Beirut (AUB). Khoury bridges the gap between the popular and the intellectual by showing academics actively and passionately involved in making and recovering the early history of Egyptian cinema and the women in it.

The documentary's main concern is in introducing its viewers to key figures in early Egyptian cinema: Aziza Amir--the actor/ producer who stared in the first full-length Egyptian Motion Picture Leyla: Bint al-Sahra' (1927); Fatma Roushdi, a headstrong and determined actress; Behidja Hafiz who acted in, edited, produced and directed her films, as well as being a composer of original scores with which she opened her monthly musical Salons. In part two, we hear the well-known Amina Rizk recount her aunt, Amina Mohamed's peculiar and singular contribution to Egyptian cinema--both as a comedic actress and as the director of Tita Wong (1937), in which Mohamad capitalizes on her "oriental" looks and plays the main character--Tita, a member of a Chinese family residing in Egypt.

Khoury's digressions into the place of contemporary Egyptian women in the film industry are of great interest. Speaking with her colleagues at a cafe, we learn from them that women are not encouraged to seek directing or producing but are often encouraged toward scriptwriting and editing instead. In addition, a young woman during these digressions makes the accurate observation that for a certain generation of actresses (who began their careers in the mid 60s and 70s) "there was no problem." Meaning that actresses such as Youssra, Nadia al-Guindi, Madiha Kamel and Najla' Fathi [Shams al-Baroudy deserves a mention here] were much more confident in the roles they played, taking on an attitude towards acting that was much more daring--whereas in contrast, young actresses of contemporary times are warned away from doing films in which they must display sexuality (or cleavage, or legs) on screen. This attitude towards the acting profession prompted one local man, Hamdi Tuhfa, to comment, "I don't know if we are going forward or backwards."

What 'Ashqat al-Cinema reveals is that women were vital contributors to Egyptian cinema in its infancy, and that even though cinema has asserted itself as an authentically Arabic institution in Egypt, it is still nevertheless treated with some suspicion when it comes to those who seek a profession in the industry. In relation to Aziza Amir, a native of Damietta, who was not recognized as an important local figure, Tuhfa remarks "Damietta does not want to deal with art ... there is such a thing as shame, having modesty ..."

And yet despite these cultural and social incursions on individual liberty and creativity, "the 1920s," says one academic at the AUB conference, "were the beginning of feminist consciousness." Indeed, the documentary seems geared towards the idea that with the end of monarchic rule at the hands of the Egyptian revolutionaries in 1952, a cultural and artistic renaissance was in store for the Egyptian cinema industry, which survived as unsettling a shift as the nationalization of studios and production companies.

For its closing segment, the documentary moves to explore the works and contributions of an Egyptian emigre, Assia Dagher, the Lebanese national from the Maronite town of Tannourrine. About her, Youssef Chahine recollects that due to the sheer volume of films she produced in Egypt (over fifty films) she was easily the most influential and well-known producer of her time. It is as though Dagher's success and Chahine's admission of the extent of it lingers for a moment, as though in an incredible dream. Dagher's achievements as a woman producer of Egyptian films remain to be equaled or even lightly contested to this day.

This documentary will be enjoyable for fans of cinema and film histories, but it will serve as a crucial academic text for those who are more interested in its subject as a serious research area.

Samar Habib

Independent Scholar
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Author:Habib, Samar
Publication:Film & History
Article Type:Video recording review
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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